As Tate Modern blew out ten candles on its birthday cake this year, there was reason to think it has been lucky. The Bankside gallery has lived through a decade of turbulence in the wider world.
This century has been filled with war, terror and recession, not the best conditions for an infant. But if art imitates life, or vice versa, then surely we can find that history within the walls of Herzog and de Meuron’s reconstructed power station.
Look no further than the annual commission of monumental work for the Turbine Hall. Viewed in a current affairs context, the Unilever Series has been more topical than it might at first appear.
- Louise Bourgeois, Maman, I do, I undo, I redo (2000) Three sculptures of mother and child were installed in bell jars at the top of towers. Nearby was a 30ft stainless steel spider, the name of which was, in French, Maman. Meanwhile, Mother Russia was to soon demonstrate tough parenting in the realm of foreign affairs. In 2005 she began a cold war with Ukraine and in 2008 a real war with Georgia.
- Juan Muñoz, Double Bind (2001/2002)Two elevators rose and fell through a patterned floor. Empty lift shafts, some false, also sank from sight. Sculpted figures were visible from the lower space, involved in a mysterious human drama. In 2001 we were stuck in a lift with George Bush descending into war with Afghanistan. Two years later we were ‘shoulder to shoulder’ for an invasion of Iraq, a Double Bind if ever there was one.
- Anish Kapoor, Marsyas (2002/2003) Red PVC was stretched across three giant rings to fill the length of the 155m hall in a piece of work named after a satyr who was flayed alive by the god Apollo. Doctors in France would in 2005 carry out the world’s first partial face transplant. The patient, Isabelle Dinoire, had been ravaged by a dog, not a god. She is reported to be happy with the results.
- Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003/2004) Mono-frequency lamps were assembled into a yellow semi-circle at the far end of the space, while an overhead mirror rounded out the impression of a dazzling indoor sun. The weather has been big news this century. The West took its worst globally-warmed hit in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans causing $81 billion worth of damage.
- Bruce Nauman, Raw Materials (2004/2005) 22 spoken texts were piped into the gallery in bands of sound which filled the space with an aural collage of jokes, pleas, poems, greetings, statements and propositions. Perhaps the most momentous words of the century were spoken in Washington in January 2009, as Barack Obama was sworn in as the first black president of the US in front of crowds of 1.8m.
- Rachel Whiteread, EMBANKMENT (2005/2006) Translucent polyethylene was used to make thousands of casts from old cardboard boxes, taken from an original in the artist’s mother’s attic. These were stacked throughout the Hall in disorder. Given the title, this work brings to mind the 1998 demolition of nearby Cardboard City. Some 200 homeless people were living out of not dissimilar boxes opposite Embankment on the Thames.
- Carsten Höller, Test Site (2006/2007) Several giant winding slides turned the gallery into a temporary funfair. The artist used the phrase “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind,” to describe the experience. But voluptuous panic was soon to engulf the City’s financial markets. First signs of the recession were already in evidence and by 2009 the entire global economy was hurtling down the tubes.
- Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth (2007/2008) Shibboleth fractured the building’s concrete floor to create a deep crack running from entrance to far wall. This comment on colonialism gave the impression of a biblical disaster. It was only three short years since the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake, aka the Tsunami. Waves of up to 30 metres claimed the lives of 230,000 people in 14 countries.
- Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, TH.2058 (2008/2009)Bunk bed frames, experimental films, artwork replicas and glaring lights transformed the Hall into an offbeat public shelter for a city under some unspecified form of attack. Although set in the future, this piece reflected a siege mentality in the West. 3,000 were killed in New York during 9/11. Subsequent bombs in Madrid and London killed 191 and 52 respectively.
- Mirolslaw Balka, How It Is, (2009/2010)A vast steel crate rose 13m high and stretched 30m long. Visitors could walk into the depths of the container to experience near total darkness, which echoed to the sound of footsteps. The most recent historical phenomenona expressed through the Turbine Hall is global migration. How It Is could refer to the dark of a freight train, container truck or Calais warehouse.
- Ai Weiwei, title yet to be confirmed, (2010/2011)Details of Ai Weiwei’s project will be kept secret for another few weeks. Let us just hope it contains some good news.
The next commission in the Unilever Series will be unveiled in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern on 12 October.